Absolutes

Jay Thompson
September 20, 2010
Comments 1

At the edge of the caldera, a pack animal stumbles:

The following evening as they rode up onto the western rim they lost one of the mules. It went skittering off down the canyon wall with the contents of the panniers exploding soundlessly in the hot dry air and it fell through sunlight and through shade, turning in that lonely void until it fell from sight into a sink of cold blue space that absolved it forever of memory in the mind of any living thing that was.

Is creation finished? That is: is everything in the world already, that will one day exist or occur?

I have a Christian friend whose belief rests in the certainty that it isn’t: that “God is still speaking,” the world in an ongoing sixth day of potential forms and half-concealed outcomes. To believe the world is incomplete is, I sometimes I think, to trust in the Romantic quaver, at fingers or insight, to believe there’s no single thing fundamental to being.

So, in an incomplete world, the work of art is the addition of a new form. William Carlos Williams, from Spring and All’s crazy prose:

“Poetry does not tamper with the world but moves it–It affirms reality most powerfully and therefore, since reality needs no personal support but exists free from human action, as proven by science in the indestructibility of matter and of force, it creates a new object, a play, a dance which is not a mirror up to nature but–.

That dash makes half the point. But Fanny Howe, grande dame poet and activist and (since the 90s) Benedictine nun, writes in her essay collection The Winter Sun that the world is finished. It’s all here; here now. “I walk down a busy street and every face has completed its task and is walking from that completion toward the future I represent, my present.” Your comfort, says Howe, is to “align yourself with what contains you,” a comfort you’re surest of in our times of restlessness and bewilderment. “When people are uprooted and insecure, their tables are alive with the conversation of prophets.”

In the world of Cormac McCarthy’s vanished mule–the vacated wastelands of the Texas-Mexico border of the 1850s–creation is done, too, and the world is brutal. We hear no one’s thoughts in Blood Meridian, only the rough cadences of talk, flashes of sickening violence, a soaring Biblical view of the country, and the sand-grinding machineworks of each character’s fate.

McCarthy’s cosmos is savage; it’s also not much different from Howe’s. Before the campfire, the Judge (McCarthy’s weird amoral self-taught scholar and killer) compares mankind to a boy whose father died before his birth, without living to fail in his son’s eyes, without ever falling short. So the son is doomed to never live past his old man. He is “broken before a frozen god and he cannot find his way.”

The sun came out a second on the long hill I ride down to work as I thought about all this, construction lights stuttering for cars’ attention, the air stinking like salt. The young Wittgenstein, quoted in Howe, suggests a way of seeing to take in both of these impossible perspectives, Williams’s and Howe’s. As opposed to our daily “secondary” language, he writes, an imaged elemental primary language “would not permit any way of expressing a preference for certain phenomena over others; it would have to be, so to speak, absolutely impartial.”

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